Jared C. Tilton
The strife enveloping the NHL provides an endorsement for NASCAR's sometimes-criticized leadership structure. No race has been lost to a labor dispute, and there hasn't been any sort of boycott by drivers since 1969.
I feel for fans of the National Hockey League as they sit through this silly squabble that has already cost their favorite teams a shot at a full 82-game slate. It's no fun to have parts of the schedule wiped off because people can't come to an agreement for the good of the sport.
I dealt with it in 1994 with Major League Baseball, when my beloved Atlanta Braves were robbed of their chance to run down the Montreal Expos for the National League East crown - and make no mistake, they would have run them down - Tony Gwynn was robbed of his shot at batting .400, Yankee great Don Mattingly was robbed of what would have been his only appearance in the playoffs, the list can go on and on.
When baseball finally returned the following spring - with each team's first 18 games lost to the strike - I was over the moon. I didn't understand why folks weren't coming to the games and filling the seats like before the strike. I didn't understand why the fans who did go to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium were booing Tom Glavine, our own pitcher. I didn't get all the banners with the dollar signs and all of that. All I knew is that the Braves were back in action, and I was one happy eight-year-old.
Now I do understand, and I see the ridiculousness of it all. When you're dealing with a certain number of zeros after the dollar sign and before the decimal point, there is absolutely no excuse to not be able to reach some agreement so the fans can enjoy the sport they love and, more importantly, don't turn their backs on you and find something else to occupy their time with.
That brings us to NASCAR, and what has been described as its "benevolent dictatorship" over big-time stock car racing. NASCAR makes all the rules - sometimes it seems the rulebook is written in pencil and those rules can change at any time for any or no reason - and competitors can either follow those rules or find some other way to spend their weekends.
That's the way it has always been. Bill France squashed any perceived threat to his sport, including unions. When early superstars Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts, and Tim Flock became involved with the Teamsters, he banned all three for life (Turner and Roberts were later reinstated; Flock retired) and declared that "No known union member will compete in a NASCAR race, and I'll use a pistol to enforce that."
NASCAR's way works, however. There has never been a race lost to a labor dispute - the only non-natural event postponement of a race was the 2001 New Hampshire 300, moved to November due to September 11 - and there hasn't been any sort of boycott by competitors since the 1969 Talladega 500.
That was supposed to be the inaugural race at what is now the Talladega Superspeedway, but concerns about the durability of the tires led several drivers to form what they called the "Professional Drivers Association." Richard Petty, by that time the undisputed King of stock car racing, was the organization's leader.
Rather than shooting every one of his star drivers, France chose a different route: questioning their mettle. In fact, superspeedway ace Lee Roy Yarbrough allegedly decked Big Bill after France insinuated to Bobby Allison's face that he was simply too scared to run the track. France stood his ground, saying there would be a race, but if those stars wanted to go home, they could. Most of them did, the full 500-mile race was run with a field largely comprised of drivers from the support race the previous day, and a fellow named Richard Brickhouse scored his only NASCAR Grand National (now Sprint Cup) victory.
By carrying on with the race even without names like Petty, Pearson, and Allison in the field, France had won, and the PDA dissolved shortly thereafter. No attempt to organize the drivers has gained the slightest bit of traction since.
Unions are great - when they are correctly utilized. Unfortunately, there simply haven't been enough decent men working together to avoid self-inflicted disasters like the 1994-95 baseball strike and the current NHL debacle. The pie is only so big, but both sides have a knife and want it cut their way. Once they're done cutting, the pie is a mess that is often no longer fit for eating.
NASCAR holds the only knife when it comes to their pie, and folks are welcome to a slice of it so long as they follow the sanctioning body's rules. While there may be a few situations here and there where the powers that be and its competitors butt heads, the sport's long-term health is protected by making its own rules and having independent contractors - rather than franchises - as its participants.